Ideas and Reality



Where Do Ideas and Reality Meet?

By Mwizenge S. Tembo

 Formerly Jacob S. Tembo

Research Staff Development Fellow (Sociology)

Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia

March 1977

            Although this question might appear to bear no direct relevance to this publication, however, I find it a key end result of the publication.

Putting it simplistically, an “idea” is what you think of in your head often in form of imagination; something that you conceive.  An idea is abstract.  You cannot place it on a table and cut it into pieces.  This is why it often requires a tremendous amount of mental energy to convince another person to agree about the coherence or truth of your idea.  This is because the individual recipient of the new idea has other ideas prevailing in his head about the world, how he should treat his children, how government should be run and what education is for.  These ideas that exist in his head might have taken over 25 years to be formed.  The idea which is being introduced has to fight a “war” inside the recipient’s head.  Now imagine you have two million people to convince.  This implies about two million battles in people’s heads.  Chances of your idea gaining victory are often very slim.  Hence the difficulties of introducing novel ideas in any kind of society.  In this respect the Zambian Society and the institutions alike, cannot be an exception.

Reality is what prevails now and you can see, touch, feel, smell and hear it.  As an illustration of this phenomenon, if you imagine that a policeman is riding a goat while giving chase to bank robbers; that is an idea because the whole drama and scenario is in your head.  If you explained it to another person who has apparently not lived in a village before to see goats, he might imagine that a goat looks like a cat or a dog.  On the other hand, if you walk into Cairo Road in the city and you see a policeman riding a goat, chasing bank robbers, then your idea has corresponded to reality.  This is because now you can put your dear comrade and point to the drama while saying “can you see that policeman on a goat’s back chasing those bank robbers!”  Later on you can even go and shake the policeman’s hand, pat the goat and survey the bank robbers behind the bars.  This analogy is only meant to demonstrate that ideas are not very convincing unless they can be transformed into reality.  What is the implication of this conclusion?

The conclusion has implications on academic pursuits of our time and how the ideas acquired there from can be used for positive transformation of society.

You will often notice in the social sciences that there is a gap between knowledge and the practical use of the knowledge to solve human contemporary social problems.  The colleagues in the natural sciences do not suffer from this set back on a large scale.  But the condition is so chronic in the social sciences that it often boarders hypocrisy.  Before the axe of making unfounded generalizations falls on me, let me elaborate.

Intellectuals today make very rigorous research and an amazing magnitude of speculation about contemporary social problems.  The ideas gathered are supposed to be channeled towards the solution of these problems.  But quite to the contrary, intellectuals regard the social scientific ideas and philosophical discourses as a special sacred art by virtue of the fact that they have never been used to influence reality directly and above all laymen do not possess the tools for understanding the proposed ideas.  So long as this gap exists, social scientific knowledge will remain abstract and a meaningless product of rigorous mental exercise.  Social tragedies that have taken place in various societies in the world will bear testimony to this assertion.  For instance the history of racial and ethnic prejudice has very shocking records.  From the year 1400 to 1800, it is estimated that 20,000,000 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to America in the brutal slave trade.  [1]Some elements of this phenomenon still exist in South Africa and Rhodesia today.  During the 2nd World War over 6,000,000 Jews were killed in gas chambers in Hitler’s Germany.  [2]Social scientific ideas do exist which explain how some remnants of these social problems still exist today.  Psychology is one of the disciplines which has the answers.  But society seems to defy and turn its back on to most of the solutions.

In view of the condition of society as demonstrated by the recurrent problems above, there is still tremendous amount of energy which has to be expended in the process of transforming abstract ideas into reality.

The question, which in my opinion is timely to ask at this juncture, is what is the role of Zambian social scientists i.e. intellectuals and academicians?  I would like to contend that their role must be to pave the way for an intellectual revolution in form of searching for new ways of looking at all forms of social phenomena.  It is fruitless and unfaithful to our society if the most the intellectuals can do is either dust old exhausted theories or continue polishing theories that already prevail on the intellectual sphere somewhere and try to squeeze impossible solutions out of them.

Finding new approaches of looking at social problems invariably entails finding a meeting point between ideas and reality.  The questions that have to be answered foremost are ‘when do ideas change reality? and under what circumstances does reality change ideas?’

I am conscious that the materialistic approach to solution of social problems reflected in the philosophical approach embodied in political economy has gained very wide currency among intellectuals today.  (see footnote).  A rigid view of the whole idea is misleading to say the least and frustrates the discovery of other new avenues of intellectual thought.  The economic base and superstructure should not be viewed only in terms of the former influencing the latter.  But rather that the two engage in a continuous interacting process.  With this view in mind, it is my hope therefore that this publication which contains ideas about alcoholism in Zambia will be used by laymen and intellectual alike, not only for improving their conception and understanding of the problem, but to use the ideas for changing reality with regards to the removal of certain maladies in the pattern of life of the Zambian contemporary society.

If we examine the history of various societies in the world, it is amazing how at some periods in these societies certain modes of behavior cause a crisis either in reality or in thought and are consequently called “social problems”.  This dichotomous distinction has some interesting implications, as explained earlier.  What is a social problem?

This question has been discussed in detail by several sociological theorists.  In fact it has been noted that most of the theorists were inspired by a desire to find a solution to the social problems of their time.  One of these was Emile Durkheim.  [3]He essentially suggests that just like a biological organism has its sick and healthy state some elements of Social phenomena of society have a point at which they are a normal attribute of society.  But they also have a point beyond which they are pathological for society.

Having briefly explained the nature of a social problem, the questions to which we have now to address ourselves are what is alcoholism?  To what extent is “alcoholism” a social problem in Zambia?  How much does the process of socialization contribute to the problems?  The seminar papers which are contained in this publication provide some tentative answers and suggestions.  An attempt has been made to make the papers useful for both academicians as well as laymen.



[1] Walter Rodney (1972) (P. 104)

[2] This is evident in the latest Zango publication.  “Zango” – Zambia Journal of Contemporary Issues;

No. 2, April, 1977, (pp. 75-78)

[3] Emile Durkheim “The Rules of Sociological Method” (1938)

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